Some people will tell you that there’s no right way to watch a movie, read a book, look at a painting, etc. In deference to the popular notion of all outlooks being inherently subjective, I suppose that’s technically correct – if you feel more comfortable watching your movies in the form of 7-second Vine increments while riding backwards over cobblestone streets on a llama, you’re probably insane, but I suppose not technically wrong.
What I do feel comfortable in holding to, however, is that there is an intended way for a given work to be experienced, and not necessarily in the vein of “this sounds better on vinyl” or the idea that you need to speak ancient Greek to fully appreciate Plato. But most creative works are in fact made with a certain specific mode of presentation and experience intended. Movies, for example, are made to be watched in a semi-passive, if not submissive, fashion. The audience is meant to open themselves to what the filmmakers have presented, from start to finish, in the fashion of coastal rocks being washed over by waves; with criticism (good or ill) coming after, and resistance or detachment coming only when the film/filmmakers have abused or failed in their role (read: the movie sucks) .
Unfortunately, while the on-demand nature of modern entertainment has been a boon for film watchers in most respects, it has also fostered a poisonous culture dedicated to using the deconstructive tools of cinematic and literary academia – designed for use on artworks in an instructive post-experience/post-impact context – to bludgeon and brutalize perfectly good (even great) films to death for inconsequential sins of inconsistency colloquially called “plot holes” or “fails.”
The current vanguard of this noxious practice is a YouTube channel called Cinema Sins, which essentially borrows Honest Trailers routine but trades actual insight for forced cynicism and opts not to even bother with the creative effort of arranging its thoughts into the form of a trailer. Instead, it’s mostly a rundown of nitpicks (some of them are really a stretch) written as though they leapt fully-formed from a mind that is either incapable of giving itself over to cinematic viewing or heavily practiced at affecting the same.
Let me be clear: The tools of the film critic or the academic are of tremendous value in their proper setting. But just as a mortician’s bone saw that can yield vital understanding of biology when applied to a corpse becomes a ghastly weapon when applied to a living being, so too does detached clinical nitpicking lead to little more than intellectual violence when applied to a film fresh from (or worse yet, prior to) the watching.
To get right to the point, unless we’re talking about documentaries (and sometimes not even then), all movies are innately unreal. They bend the laws of reality (Matt Damon is not a brainwashed super-soldier), break the laws of physics (there is no sound in space), and outright ignore the laws of time (Braveheart was not actually photographed in 12th Century Scotland). The reason that actual, legitimate flaws stand out is not because of their falseness or implausibility, but because they still stand out too far to accept even when your disbelief has already been suspended.
For example: Entire planets dominated by a single geographic feature, but capable of sustaining life? Willing to buy it. A pre-teen blowing up a space station by accident in the same universe? Too far… but not because one is any more implausible than the other. It’s because one was infinitely better executed. See also: My problem with Prometheus is not that various characters described as serious, professional scientists suddenly start making stupid decisions for no reason other than to drive plot events – if that in and of itself bothered me there wouldn’t be many science fiction, horror, or monster movies I could enjoy. No, my problem with Prometheus is that the characters in question were so thin and their motivations so vague and ill-defined that my mind had nowhere else to go but to linger on how little sense everyone’s behavior was making.
This also works in reverse, incidentally. On this very site, it was recently demonstrated that Indiana Jones really could have survived a nuclear blast by hiding in a fridge. That’s pretty damn interesting as a thought experiment (and entertaining as a webshow, to be sure) but if it “feels” false to the audience, it might as well be. Writer/director John Milius once cited this as the main reason nobody, himself included, had ever cracked a feature biopic of Teddy Roosevelt. The facts of Roosevelt’s extraordinary life just weren’t believable, even though they were true.
An even more recent example? As seen in this week’s review of A Good Day To Die Hard, I was ultimately so detached from the dishwater-dull movie playing out before me that I had time to ruminate on the myriad impossibilities of the John McClane character. Do you know what equally-illogical movie I didn’t have that issue? Die Hard With A Vengeance. Because that film was so good that you don’t really notice. Incidentally, this is something that the aforementioned Honest Trailers gets in a way that its imitators don’t. Their rather spot-on appraisal of the mountain of “wait… what?” moments that was The Avengers … and why it really just doesn’t matter in the end.
Simply put, what’s important during the watching of a movie is what and how you feel during the viewing. If something utterly impossible, nonsensical or unbelievable plays out in front of you and you’re so wrapped up in the experience thanks to the music, action, performances and overall verisimilitude that you don’t even think about something not having made sense until later, if at all, that’s good! That’s what’s supposed to happen, and contrary to the parlance popular in this generation of unearned irony, it’s not a case of you not being clever enough to have caught it or the filmmakers being somehow deceitful; It’s the movie doing what a movie is supposed to do.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.